If you’ve got a clear sky on Thursday, February 27, take a look to the southwest in the hours after sunset…you’ll see a celestial sight you won’t soon forget.
A delicately curved crescent moon will be visible almost alongside a very bright planet Venus, together the two brightest objects in the night sky. So, as soon as it gets dark on Thursday, look to the southwest. In the gathering twilight, you’ll watch the bright planet Venus become visible with a crescent moon barely six degrees below and to the left, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere.
Now, why is Venus (named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty) currently shining at such a high magnitude? Why does the moon keep appearing so close to it? And how come you didn’t you notice it before?
Why is Venus so Bright?
It’s easy to see why Venus is called the “Evening Star ” when it’s this bright. If it reminds you of something, you may have seen a similar sight just last month. We’re currently in the middle of a brilliant “apparition” of Venus (a period of a few months called greatest elongation when it’s furthest from the sun) so it will be shining brightly throughout June 2020 as well.
Why a Crescent Moon?
The moon takes 29.5 days to orbit Earth, and it follows the same (if slightly wobbly) orbital path every month. Moonlight is merely the lunar surface reflecting sunlight. On Sunday, February 23, the moon is “new.” That means it’s roughly between the Earth and the sun, so we can’t see it all. As the moon moves away from that “new” position, we start to see the side of the moon illuminated by the sun: a “waxing” crescent moon. It’s visible in the western sky for a few days after the new moon phase, just after sunset as the moon gets further from the sun as it travels from west to east around Earth.
Why is the Crescent Moon so close to Venus?
Both the moon and the planets appear to orbit on the same path through our sky, the ecliptic. The ecliptic is essentially the plane of the solar system. All the planets orbit the sun on roughly the same plane. The moon also orbits close to the ecliptic, so it makes sense that occasionally the moon and planets appear to pass closely in the night sky. In reality, the moon is 249,892 miles from Earth on Thursday, February 27, while Venus is 84 million miles away.
In a month’s time on 28th March 2020, the crescent moon will again creep up close to Venus for a very similar show. The planet is climbing ever higher in the night sky at the moment, and on 9th March 2020, it will be close to the distant planet Uranus (though powerful binoculars or a telescope will be necessary to see the seventh planet from the sun).
Venus is currently in a brilliantly bright apparition as seen from Earth, regularly putting on a show with the crescent moon. The planet will reach its brightest and best of 2020 in early May before disappearing into the pre-dawn sky in June to become a brilliant “Morning Star” in the latter half of 2020.
The moon, meanwhile, is creeping slowly towards us, which will culminate in a close “Super Worm Moon” (the last full moon of winter) on Monday, March 9, 2020.